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Feature 16 Jul 12

Serbian Dragon Trail Awaits Discovery

Serbian mythology is teeming with dragon tales – but tourist buffs have yet to link the many sites connected to these mysterious creatures into a visitors’ trail.

Nemanja Cabric

Behind the legend of the downfall of medieval Serbia, lie fairy-tales about a good dragon who failed to save his people from the hands of the malevolent Ala, or Azdaha. 

Thus, the Ottoman conquest and the famous Kosovo Battle of 1389 resulted in a battle not only fought by people, but by dragons as well.

According to oral tradition, the participants of the bloody battle became semi-gods, mythical creatures whose dragon origins often appear in folk tales and epic poems. 

Serbian cultural expert Sreten Petrovic, through his books, has attempted to prove the existence of a dragons “pantheon” in Serbian medieval culture, called the “Jastrebacki panteon”.

This Pantheon was crowned by the Jastrebac Dragon, Zmaj od Jastrepca, and included various heroes from Serbia’s medieval epic poetry.

Many legends and folk tales in Serbia feature these lusty and brave dragons, which defended Serbia’s skies and lands from the Ottomans, and from bad weather as well.

But, despite this rich heritage, and the many sites connected with it, a “cultural trail” has yet to be constructed, that would enable visitors to learn more about Serbia’s dragons through the form of a journey.

Myths and facts intertwined:

Various heroes, historical or fictional, mainly from the Kosovo epic cycle, were presumed to be sons of dragons.

Some of the highest in this genealogy were the Despot, Stefan Lazarevic, Zmaj Ognjeni Vuk [the fiery dragon wolf], Vasa Carapic, Zmaj od Avale [the dragon of Avala], and Stojan Cupic, Zmaj od Nocaja,[the dragon of Nocaj].

Other heroes bestowed with dragon-like attributes included Milos Obilic, Banovic Strahinja, Ljutica Bogdan and King Marko.

Despot Stefan Lazarevic (1377-1427) was the son of the famous Knez, or Prince, Lazar, the man who led the Serbian army into the fateful battle with the Ottomans in 1389 at the Battle of Kosovo. However, the popular belief was that his actual origins were from the dragon of Jastrebac.

The legend of his origin morphed into an epic poem, featuring the dragon child, Zmaj Ognjeni Vuk, who kills the dragon of Jastrebac because of Vuk’s relationship with Milica, the wife of Prince Lazar.

Zmaj Ognjeni Vuk, in reality was Despot Vuk Brankovic (1471-1485), believed to be a descendant of a dragon.

As Zmaj Ognjeni Vuk lived some 50 years after the death of Stefan Lazarevic, it is evident that the folk tales frequently altered historical facts for their own agendas.

These folk tales also presented Stefan Lazarevic as a unique personality, a traveller who disguised himself as a beggar who monitored how people lived, punishing evil and rewarding righteousness.

When the Hungarian King, Sigismund, renewed an old chivalric order called the “Order of the Dragon”, the Societas Draconistrarum, Stefan was the first to sign up.

This might be one of the reasons for his mythical dragon status in the imaginations of the Serbian people.

Stefan’s battles against the Turks are described as fearsome victories, while his failure to win the final battle to drive the Ottoman’s out of Serbia was widely attributed to the withdrawal of divine help.

All his children and heirs became dragons in Serbian folklore, and copious tales about their mythical powers survive to this day, notably in Bosnia and Herzegovina and along the Adriatic coast. 

Although not historically factual, these legends thus turned many locations in Serbia into dwellings of new, benign breeds of dragons. These dragons were unlike the malign dragons featured in many legends across Europe, where Christian tradition commonly identified dragons with Satan.

In Serbian folk tradition, dragons are mostly good creatures that have an obligation to help people.

On the other hand, Ala or Azdaja, was the dragons’ worst enemy. In Serbian folklore it brought storms, wind, and other bad weather that could ruin crops.

The dragon responsible for stopping Ala, or Azdaja, with his fiery beams was often imagined as a long-tailed bird that left traces of light emanating from its tail on the night sky, as it ascended to perform its mission.

Ala’s opponent was also thought to be a large fish, in some parts of Serbia. It was usually depicted as an old carp, which was never able to be seen by man, who would over the years transform into a dragon. Thus, in some parts of Serbia, the carp became honoured as a sacred beast.

The natural habitat of Serbian dragons was typically considered to be on mountaintops, such as Jastrebac near Krusevac, rivers, mountain streams, or the woods. Many of these places still bear the name “Zmajevac”

Dragons were also known for their busy love lives. Sometimes the blame for bad weather was placed onto a dragon being detained in some fair lady’s chamber.

People often demanded that these ladies end their relationships with the dragons, so they could get back to fighting against malevolent dragons and black birds.

However, love affairs between dragons and ladies were allowed and even encouraged, because of the dragon children that would subsequently be born from the affairs.

These children were called “zmajeviti”, and possessed magical attributes. During storms, according to legends, they would fall asleep and their souls would fly up in the clouds to scare off daemons.

During their trances, family or friends would gather around their sleeping bodies and wave swords over them, in the attempt to defend them from Azdaha.

They would later wake up, tired and often wounded, completely unaware of the great battle that they had fought.

Unexploited potential:

Historians note that rituals related to dragons were performed in Serbia even up until the first half of the last century.

On several occasions, villagers gathered to expel dragons from the houses of local women, after bad weather had destroyed all of their crops. This custom was then known as “mugajale”.

Despite of its rich heritage connected with dragons, Serbia has yet to design a route or trail that links all of the sites where dragons lived, fought, and had love affairs.

According to the State Institute for Monitoring Cultural Development, such a route may include castles, fortresses on the Danube and other cities mostly in eastern and southern Serbia. Churches, and other land landmarks, which still preserve these legends, would be included in the trail.

However the topic still remains largely unexplored. For now, it serves mostly as a starting topic for the study of Serbian folklore. Hopefully, in the near future, it might turn into an actual tourist reality. 

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